It was nearly a year to the day that I took to my keyboard and made a case for the middling Celtics as title contenders. Despite their head-scratching inconsistency (put mildly) over the final four months of the 2010 season, I had refused to write them off.
Contrary to the product they had put on the hardwood throughout a 27-27 finish, I could not believe the championship swagger and enduring will that had been the driving force behind all their successes since the Big Three came together had simply vanished into thin air. There was a monster lurking just beneath the on-the-surface mediocrity of that team, and it was waiting for the charged atmosphere and bright lights of the playoffs to unleash itself.
Lo and behold—and to the chagrin of a few so-called titans of the East—the Celtics showed their face in the playoffs, charging all the way to LA in June, with two chances to hang their second banner in three years. Then Kendrick Perkins tore his knee apart in Game 6 and the team ran out of gas with six minutes left in Game 7.
The offseason arrived suddenly and painfully, and the ball entered the court of Danny Ainge, who had to decide if he was going to blow up the Big Three—the “three-year window” had expired, after all. Ray Allen was in a walk year and Paul Pierce exercised his opt-out clause soon after the Finals, which made him a free agent.
With a lockout looming after the 2011 season, Ainge had the option to begin the rebuilding around Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett right then and there, or reload the chamber for one last run. His decision was loud and clear. Over the following weeks and months, he dizzied us all with an array of moves that included re-upping Allen, Pierce, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson while bringing aboard Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Delonte West.
There was to be one last rodeo for this crew, after all, for a group whose rallying cry of never having lost a playoff series with its starting five intact still held true.
With Perkins quite literally putting the Finals loss on his own two shoulders (or one busted right knee), the big man—drawing further inspiration from Wes Welker, who made a swift comeback from the same devastating injury—embarked on a furious and painstaking rehab process that stretched through the first chunk of the new season.
To a layman following the Celtics during that time, it would have been understandable to arrive at the conclusion that the team was taking on the form of a juggernaut. Ainge, obviously, is no layman.
On the contrary, he’s a basketball tactician with a business acumen. And while what he saw was indeed an outfit head and shoulders above the field—Shaq’s immediate chemistry with the Core Four had the team humming along to a 23-4 start—he also saw one glaring weakness: a lack of depth on the perimeter (read: Miami Heat, playoffs). This precipitated the blindsiding deal that sent Perkins and Robinson to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
Yes, a case can be made that the one player Ainge chose not to bring back last year, Tony Allen, was the first domino that ultimately culminated with the Perkins trade. In reality, though, it was Daniels’ season-ending injury that forced his hand, as the team was essentially left with nobody behind Pierce and Allen to defend Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
In any event, the trade tore the core apart, both literally and psychologically. Basketball teams talk about being families, brothers etc. all the time, but in reality—and in a best-case scenario—they are friends off the court who work well together on it in pursuit of a common goal. The Celtics are/were the exception to the rule. From the Rome trip to Ubuntu to their regular blowouts and reconciliations that are commonplace occurrences in families but typically fracturing catastrophes on pro sports teams, the Celtics were different.
Professional athletes are unique in that they have an ability to compartmentalize their emotions, but this team was actually too close, if that makes sense. The loss of Perkins sent them into a grieving state, the ripple effects of which were felt for weeks after the trade. It’s no coincidence that Rajon Rondo slipped into an abyss not long after his best friend departed.
Add to that Doc Rivers’ formidable task of integrating new components on the fly and you have the ingredients of a 10-11 limp to the finish line and tumble from first place in the East to the No. 3 seed.
So, the question now is can they do it all over again, can they flip that switch and finish the job that eluded them at Staples Center 10 months ago? Can they once again use the playoffs as a focusing mechanism that syncs them back up and fixated on the next 16 wins they must have?
There were two immediate conclusions I drew in the aftermath of the trade:
1) Ainge essentially doubled down on Shaq by moving Perkins. He had seen all he needed over the first third of the season to be convinced that a healthy Shaq made Perkins expendable, and thus gave him the flexibility to shore up what he believed to be the team’s Achilles heel. However, a healthy Shaq is not what the team has had.
2) The only way the Celtics would truly be able to get over the loss of Perkins would be to actively visualize and even prepare for the very real eventuality that the only way they’ll be hanging Banner No. 18 come June is by going through Perkins.
On the latter conclusion, it’s impossible to know if they’ve come to grips with the fact that they may have to battle Oklahoma City with a championship on the line and Perkins standing in the way.
On the former, it’s pretty simple. As presently constructed, the Celtics are in the best possible shape to navigate Rounds 1 and 2. Both the Knicks and Heat are perimeter-heavy teams with no legitimate post threats, which means Shaq will be a tangential component.
Having the 6'9" Green will enable Rivers to go small in crunch time (à la 2008, when James Posey was around) with a lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Green and Garnett. That five is ideally equipped to deal with the Chauncey Billups-Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire and Wade-James-Chris Bosh trios.
Beyond that, the team’s fate will rest on the legs of a 39-year-old center. The Bulls will be waiting in the Eastern Conference Finals, and there’s simply no way the Celtics can expect to beat them four times with Jermaine O’Neal and Krstic flanking Garnett in the paint. Ditto for the Lakers or Thunder in the Finals.
Ainge has made no secret that parting with Perkins was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. But he did it, and in doing so he assumed the reins of the season and invited the ire of a rabid fan base. Whatever the outcome, it’s on Danny Ainge. His legacy in Boston, along with the legacies of a handful of future Hall of Famers, hangs in the balance.